We walked for hours through the slum. From the top (it’s kind of sprawled on the side of a hill), over the railway tracks (made famous by the film clip in the Constant Gardener), to the Kigulu shelter, then down to the dried up Nairobi dam at the bottom where Kibera ends, back up to the railway tracks again, then back to the shelter for present giving from our school party to the orphans.
On the way to the shelter we all had a heavy bag to carry, even each of the kids from our school had to carry something. The Christmas presents were put into black bin liners in order not to draw too much attention to them and they were awkward to hold because they were full of boxes. I carried a sack of maize flour and we were all watching our footing very carefully so as not to topple into the smelly ditches. It was quite comic to see us all walking along with our ‘santa’s sacks’, in a formal two row crocodile. My friend (another parent) was worrying about getting back from the depths of the slum, to get to a hair appointment that she’d booked ages ago and really didn’t want to miss (our hairdresser gets SOOOO booked up). We giggled so much about that – she wound up leaving early (with an escort to make sure she emerged safe) and sent me a text from what she called ‘the Salon of Guilt’, to see how I was getting on with the Kibera tour, as she plunged her cafetiere and flicked through the pages of ‘Hello’.
Walking through the slum we had joyful kids shouting out; ‘How are you! How are you!’ in English, reaching up to touch us, grab our hands and run beside us (the children were all tiny – smaller than other children who live in more ‘normal’ circumstances). As we walked along, we found that the narrow pathways sometimes, unexpectedly widened into a sort of ‘street’ full of dukas (shops/shacks) or we’d suddenly stumble on a dirt football field or an open space, then the next moment the place crowds in on you again and you are weaving through narrow paths, between shacks, using compacted rubbish stepping stones to negotiate over the open sewer/river courses. The open ditches filled with rubbish and stagnant water were everywhere, the smell often wafted over you in a choking stink of defecation. In the ditches are the slops from all the Kibera residents who are driven to use plastic bags and toss the contents away (known as flying toilets) because of lack of any other facilities. I noticed that it was not just us ‘outsiders’ picking around the smelly puddles, but all the residents were too. Everyone in the slum was tiptoeing around in an effort to keep clean. In spite of the criminal shortage of any water or electricity the people in Kibera are living out their life there with great pride – somehow everyone miraculously manages to keep clean (a teacher in the shelter was wearing a beautiful full length white dress for our special visit).
The amount of recycling that goes on in the slum is an incredible sight to behold, somehow the chaotic slum is a functioning, working place. The railway track was a real focal point, a hub of commerce, with everything on sale there from second hand plastic milk and cooking oil containers, to rusty old nails and screws, to second hand toilets and plumbing pipes. There are clothes stalls, shoes for sale, cow’s hoofs being barbequed to make use of the bone (that really stinks), chips and mandazis are being fried. There are hair salons, shops where you can pay to make use of the one phone there and make a call. There are even makeshift shacks showing films from pirated dvds and calling themselves a ‘cinema’. Along the walkways are men speeding along with mali carts or wheel barrows weighed down with scrap metal or charcoal, whistling for us to get out of their way or otherwise risk get mown down. The whole place is buzzing with activity – no one seems to have given up.
Another major problem of living in Kibera is that having very little electricity in the place it means that at night the slum is very dark, which consequently means that ‘security’ is a real problem – hence the upsurge in protection rackets where organised gangs insist on charging a fee to escort you to your home at night (see previous post on Mungiki). The local newspapers said last week that the ruling political party claim to have put more than 100 toilets into Kibera and ten new schools in the run up to the December general election, however, we only saw one new block of six long drops on our walk and our guide said that there have been very few changes, certainly not 100 new toilets and no schools – he said that it’s all lies.
In the slum there is nothing much to see other than piles of rubbish (mostly dirty plastic bags), miles of rusty corrugated iron roofing and mud shacks. There are almost no trees and certainly not a square inch of land given over to cultivation which is a tragedy, as to survive in the slum, incredibly, is actually expensive! You have to pay rent for a tiny space, in a tiny room, in a tiny shack with tons of other people and it’s not even cheap! (The Kigulu Orphanage said they had to pay 2,000 shillings per month for their three tiny rooms which would together fit into any normal size room in Europe). You have to somehow find money for all your meals and food without being able to grow anything. People scrape a living by selling other people’s rubbish, but to stay in Kibera you need an income.
There is a donor funded development of new housing currently being built on the outskirts of Kibera, where rooms will have bathrooms and running water. The donors hope that residents can move to this new accommodation, but sadly this has been tried before and what happened in another Nairobi slum; ‘Mathare Valley’ was that when similar housing was built no slum residents actually moved in, instead the rooms were rented out to others for more money than the slum dwellers could afford. Some were offered space in the new accommodation but preferred to sub let, thus continuing life in the slum for a little extra income for subsistence.
We finally got back to the shelter and gave out Christmas presents with much excitement and ladies ululating. It was all a squash, but our school kids managed to squeeze in and sing a couple of Christmas carols to the orphans who were beside themselves with excitement. The orphan children were supposed to sing too, but Peter explained to us that they did not want to leave their presents in class, to perform outside, for fear of losing them or things being stolen.
It had been a really moving morning. We returned to the bus totally dehydrated and exhausted with splitting headaches from walking in the sun but as we pulled away back into civilised living with proper shops, proper schools, beautiful trees and flowers my lasting impression was; ‘God that place must get you down, and yes, it really is dreadful. But how brave and incredible those people are.’